To honor Earth Day’s 50th anniversary this week, activists like Harlan Pruden had originally planned to be outside. But the pandemic scrapped all the carefully planned marches, protests, and performances surrounding the big day on April 22nd, forcing the environmental movement online.
“We gather in this virtual space, but it is a place, and one of great importance,” Pruden said in a live stream kickoff organized by the nonprofit Earth Day Initiative on April 19th. Pruden, an educator with the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control and a member of the Cree Nation, hadn’t planned to lead the opening of the live stream; he was stepping in for a colleague hospitalized that morning with complications from COVID-19.
Connecting digital spaces to the physical planet, Pruden and others started the week of online events with a “land acknowledgement,” a practice that pays respects to indigenous nations and tribes and their traditional homeland. “If I didn’t do this land acknowledgement I kind of liken it to me walking into your house [and] not acknowledging that I’m in your house,” Pruden explained, speaking from the ancestral territory of the Coast Salish peoples, which is now Vancouver. In this case, the land he acknowledged wasn’t just for his current home, but for the entire world.
The fact that each of the 500 or so people tuning in were scattered across the world in their own houses made the poignant moment a little surreal, highlighting the unusual circumstances of this new, digital Earth Day.
Earth Day plans were upended just over a month ago, as cities and states began telling people to stay at home to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus. Since then, organizers have scrambled to make plans online. If they’re able to rally just as many people online as they planned to bring out to the streets on April 22nd, the feat could mark a new form of digital resistance in the time of coronavirus.
“People are doing something that’s never really been done before,” says Alec Connon, a coordinator for the Stop The Money Pipeline coalition, a group of organizations that is leading a day of programming during one of the most anticipated Earth Day events this year: a live stream dubbed “Earth Day Live.” The three-day event is hosted by a broader partnership of environmental groups called the Future Coalition and begins on April 22nd. “It’s definitely a case of building the ship as we sail across the sea,” says Connon.
Earth Day Live organizers hope to draw in millions of people to rally for action on climate change and make it a priority for would-be voters. There will be celebrity cameos and high-profile speakers, including Stacey Abrams, Al Gore, Jane Fonda, Joaquin Phoenix, Shepard Fairey, Ai Weiwei, and more. Questlove, Ziggy Marley, Jason Mraz, Angélique Kidjo, and others will perform. There will even be DJ’d sets with Talib Kweli, Madame Gandhi, and Soul Clap each evening for living room dance parties. It’ll all be broadcast on their website and shared on social media.
Connon visited Scotland for a couple weeks in March for his brother’s wedding, and he realized after returning stateside that months of planning for Earth Day demonstrations were essentially out the door. “I felt like 35 years had passed by how much things have changed,” he said. He and other organizers tell The Verge they’ve been working overtime over the past month to recalibrate.
Youth-led groups, like Sunrise Movement, typically occupy lawmakers’ offices and hit the pavement to agitate for change. They began figuring out how to have the same impact over the phone and online in March, after canceling smaller actions. Their Earth Day plans had been in motion since September, and a 50th anniversary couldn’t be canceled or rescheduled. So the Future Coalition announced on March 13th that they would “think creatively about how to disrupt business as usual.” They had roughly five weeks to figure it out.
It took an initial flurry of Zoom calls and throwing ideas onto Google Docs for their new plan to materialize. Groups had already turned to social media to keep each of their own campaigns going. But more of the same wouldn’t be enough for Earth Day.
“From the very beginning, we knew in the back of our minds that we had to match the momentum, and that it couldn’t just be a social media campaign that you just like, do a tweet storm,” says Dillon Bernard, Future Coalition’s communications director. “To match the impact we wanted to make, it had to be something that was fittingly out of bounds, because I think as a youth-led movement we also kind of toe the line of what would usually be considered impossible.”
Many of the groups behind Earth Day Live — including US Youth Climate Strike, Sunrise Movement, and Extinction Rebellion — were the driving force of a series of mass protests last year. In September, protesters demanding ambitious climate action surrounded the United Nations climate conference in New York. In October, the iconic Wall Street bull was doused with blood by activists with Extinction Rebellion, who said it symbolized what they saw as Wall Street prioritizing profits from fossil fuels over human life.
Protest coordinators are keeping details under wraps until the live stream begins on the 22nd, but a few groups have already outlined some preliminary efforts targeting fossil fuels. The Stop the Money Pipeline coalition originally planned to protest at Chase locations to pressure the bank to fully divest from fossil fuels. Now those protests will need to move online, potentially by taking aim at rating pages like Yelp for each location, according to organizers.
For many of the young organizers The Verge spoke with, this year is one of the first times they’ve participated in demonstrations marking Earth Day — a day that’s lately been more associated with appreciating trees and polar bears than with rallying against injustice.
But the first Earth Day in 1970 was born out of outrage and frustration. It was organized in the wake of a massive oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara and the harms caused by the pesticide DDT that were exposed in Rachel Carson’s seminal book, Silent Spring.
“This is not about a celebration, it never was. It was about creating the world’s largest movement to force our leaders, our corporate leaders, our national leaders, even our international leaders to get off their butts and do something,” says Kathleen Rogers, president of Earth Day Network, which grew out of the very first Earth Day and helps to coordinate annual events worldwide. “You cannot use the word celebrate in our office,” Rogers says.
Phone calls and messages in multiple languages flooded Rogers’ office after it announced that Earth Day 2020 would have to go digital, some from groups that had spent years planning for events. “It was so sad,” she says, as she lists projects falling by the wayside — orchestras that planned to perform for 24 hours in a row, dance companies choreographing original pieces, Sikh religious leaders who had banned plastic in their temples leading up to a big Earth Day event.
Some of those projects might still take place during the Earth Day’s half-year anniversary in October, or perhaps for the 51st anniversary next year, Rogers says. Others might join the live stream this week.
The Earth Day Live broadcast will feature a national live stream, and the event website will include a map and links for local live streams across the US and the world. It reflects the way the climate movement itself is a patchwork of individuals and groups working from wherever they call home and coming together to tackle a global crisis. Their hope is that coming together in a new way online now might lay the groundwork for a digital infrastructure that can further their work afterwards, especially during the 2020 election season in the US.
“Really from nothing, there’s been a whole infrastructure that has sprung up over the last month,” Connon tells The Verge. The Future Coalition has turned to groups like the nonprofit assemblage of engineers, technologists, and activists Fight for the Future and others for technical support.
A 72-hour live stream is no easy feat during a pandemic. Event organizers built a new website dedicated to the three-day live stream. They’ll also be working with media studio Mobeon and the video platform Maestro to make the live stream interactive. Since a big focus will be getting people to vote for candidates who support strong climate policies, viewers can click on an overlay that asks them to register to vote via the nonprofit Rock The Vote.
Without help from their many partners, “I think otherwise we would get it done but it might not look as good and might crash,” Bernard says with a laugh. They’ve put together a virtual “war room” of organizers on Zoom who will troubleshoot any problems that pop up. If the video embed on the webpage crashes, they have backup embeds. If the website itself crashes, they’ll quickly redirect viewers to another channel to watch — most likely the organizers’ Twitch page.
In their efforts to “reach every corner of the internet,” Bernard says, they’ve broadened their reach. People who tune into the live stream and have never hit the streets for a climate strike might take part the next time the opportunity arises. The coalition has built new relationships with celebrities joining their Earth Day program, whom they hope they can count on again in the future. And the next time they organize a rally in real life, which many of the participating groups typically record on Twitter or Facebook Live, they’ve got the tools to put together a more sophisticated broadcast. Ultimately, Bernard says, “When we’re able to go back into the streets, I think our movement will be stronger.”